This report on the Sotheby’s Rembrandt to Richter sale in July 2020 by Colin Gleadell features important details on buyers, consignors and drinking habits of art dealers which may have had an impact on the outcome of the sales. You won’t find information like the consignor of $61.3 million worth of Modern art and the sellers of a Warhol diamond dust shadow painting anywhere else. The report is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
Sotheby’s July 28th cross-disciplinary sale of Old Masters, 19th Century, Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art, Rembrandt to Richter, contributed £149.7 million pounds to the season’s total ameliorating the much-circulated 49% drop in year-over-year sales calculated by Arttactic (which ended the first half of the year on July 10th even with this last sale scheduled for the end of the month.)
Sotheby’s sale had been estimated to add between £108.2 million and £155.5 million for 65 lots after six lots, with a combined low estimate of £20.6 million, were withdrawn. (Prices include the buyers’ premium, estimates do not.)
Withdrawals have been a common feature of sales since March when lots without presale interest, are pulled at the last hour. This time it affected a none-too-fluid Frans Hals at £2/3 million; a late Portrait of John Edwards by Francis Bacon at an optimistic £12/18 million; an ostensibly very rare Verrocchio drawing; and a potentially record busting Orientalist painting by Gustav Bauernfeind (about which more below).
The TV spectacular sale staged by Patrick Drahi’s Sotheby’s (it is said by a designer from BBCTV’s Strictly Come Dancing) will not be going away after the pandemic subsides. That doesn’t mean live attendees won’t return to the events as they did this week. In another room from the auctioneer’s stage set, London dealer, Thomas Gibson, who was one and underbid a romantic 1928 gouache by Chagall that sold for a double estimate £1.9 million ($2.5 million), sat in “a room full of small thé dansant tables with elaborate flower arrangements and an endless supply of champagne and of really quite good wines” which may have helped that Chagall on its way a bit.
Old Master and 19th Century
Piecing together the categories covered in the sale, the Old Master and 19th Century contents comprised 10 works with a combined low estimate value of £20.4 million, or 18.9% of the value of the whole sale – modern and contemporary made up the remainder. As is the norm at Sotheby’s London Old Master sales, Dutch paintings were ascendant. Louis Reijtenbagh had negotiated a guarantee with Sotheby’s on the rare Rembrandt self-portrait and a third party had taken it on with a low estimate pitched at £12 million ($15.5 million) – comfortably above the previous record for a self-portrait of £7 million paid at Sotheby’s in 2003 by US collector, Steve Wynn. After a minor skirmish between four bidders it sold to Sotheby’s New York based expert, Christopher Apostle for £14.5 million ($18.7 million).
It took two and-a-half years for the buyer of a Portrait of a lady in a UK country saleroom, described as ‘Workshop of Peter Paul Rubens’ and sold for £78,000 against a £25,000 estimate, to clean it and persuade Sotheby’s it is actually by Rubens worthy of a £2.5/£3.5 million estimate. The buyer, London dealer Fergus Hall who specialises in uncovering baroque sleepers, must have been pretty happy when it sold at Sotheby’s, albeit on the low estimate so possibly to the third-party guarantor, for £3 million. Some experts, like Dr Hans Vlieghe of Antwerp’s Rubenianum, suggested it was more the work of his studio than of Rubens himself.
Another case of reattribution was a drawing of drapery dating to the 15th century, presented throughout the 20th century as a Leonardo. In 1989 it was bought as such from Sotheby’s in Monaco by Barbara Piasecka Johnson for 31.1 million Francs (£3.1 million or $5.2 million). When Johnson exhibited it in 2010 it was still given to Leonardo, but after she died in 2013, a reattribution process began. In 2014, Sotheby’s sold a companion drapery study from Johnson’s estate (bought at the same Monaco sale as by Leonardo) but as ‘Workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio’, where Leonardo learned his trade, for £1.7 million. The present highly similar work, however, was fully catalogued as Andrea del Verrocchio and estimated at £2/3 million. In his video tour of the highlights, British art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon, enthused over it. But, in spite of the video’s 185,000 viewers, not all the scholars were convinced, and no bids had been signalled before the sale, so it was withdrawn.
There were no such uncertainties over a superlative view of the baroque Zwinger Museum complex in Dresden by Canaletto’s nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, estimated at £3/4million. Only a past ownership dispute between the German government and the heirs of Max Emden who claimed the painting has been sold under duress during the Nazi regime. The dispute settled, Sotheby’s had obtained a financial interest (lawyers’ fees?) when taking the painting on consignment. Top price for Bellotto, whose star rises the more we know about him, was the £11.7 million paid in 2017 on behalf of London’s National Gallery for another German subject, the much larger view of the Fortress of Konigstein, and at auction, $11 million in 2007. At this week’s sale, the view of Dresden was competed for by London’s head of Old Masters, Alex Bell, and art advisor, Hugo Nathan, who was sitting in Sotheby’s special clients’ room. At £4.6 million, Nathan dropped out and it sold to Bell’s client for £5.4 million or $7 million.
Nathan said the success of the sale was down to the sensible estimates. Although Sotheby’s claim that 50% of lots sold above estimate is coloured by the fact that they compare sold prices, which include the buyer’s premium, against estimates which do not – a re-calculation shows that a still-high 38% of lots sold at hammer prices above estimates. It also showed that “you don’t need a room full of 200 people for a sale to do well,” he said.
The 19th Century European Art category was thinly represented but not without interest. The Dane, Vilhelm Hammershoi, is usually found in 19th Century Art sales, but graduates to Impressionist and Modern for something special. This sale had a view of a courtyard in the block where he lived and painted and was really only special because it was atypical. It had been bought in 1990 when the Scandinavian market was booming and warranting specialised sales, for £17,600 – about a quarter the price of his more sought-after interiors. These have recently fetched up to $6.2 million. The courtyard scene, a smaller version of a work in the Toledo Museum of Art, had been estimated at a more modest £400/600,000, though still the highest estimate yet for a non-interior scene by the artist for which the record stood at £361,250 ($560,425) set in 2017. So this only needed one bid on the reserve to set a new benchmark for Hammershoi exteriors. In fact, it got two bids and sold for £795,000.
The other 19th century picture was to have been provided by a panoramic ‘View of Bethlehem from the Mount of Olives’ by the German Orientalist painter, Gustav Bauernfeind. Sotheby’s met with reasonable success last year with the £33.5 million sale of 40 Orientalist works from the Najd collection, which, as I revealed in The Daily Telegraph, was the code name given to a collection built since c1970 by the Saudi billionaire, Dr Nasser Al-Rashid. Amongst the records was a £3.7 million for Bauernfeind’s busy ‘Market in Jaffa.’
The View of Bethlehem came to market with the artist’s highest estimate yet of £3/4 million. According to sources familiar with the painting, and not divulged by Sotheby’s, it was being sold by the Palestinian-born Lebanese collector Ramzi Dalloul. Dalloul, a colourful octogenarian, is building a museum for his 4,000 plus collection of modern Middle Eastern art in Beirut, and may have been selling, say the sources, to help finance this. He acquired it in 1988, just after it was sold at Sotheby’s London for £95,000 hammer to London’s Pyms Gallery, bidding presumably for Dalloul who has kept it in his Kensington home ever since. Recently it had been on offer through London dealer, Agnews, with a £4.5 million price tag, but not sold, and this may have damaged its sale prospects at Sotheby’s where it received so little pre-sale interest even at £3 million it was withdrawn.
Modern and Contemporary
By far the greater proportion of the sale was in Modern and Contemporary art. There was only one example by an Impressionist artist – an 1890 Renoir nude bought by an Italian collector for $741,000 in 2003. Estimated to make a small return at £700,00 – £1 million, it did just that selling to an American bidder for £1 million ($1.3 million). Conspicuous by their absence here were the Asian bidders who have shown an interest in Renoir nudes in the past. In fact Asian bidding was thin throughout, only underbidding a large, recent figure painting by Jenny Saville (sold for a mid-estimate £3.1 million) and buying a small Gerhard Richter abstract on paper near the low estimate for £759,000.
The bulk of the value of the modern section (estimated at some £58.8 million or 46% of the estimated sale value) came from two sources. As Bloomberg reported before the sale, a Miró and a Matisse (combined low estimate of £28 million) were sent for sale by US billionaire Ronald Perelman. Both were supported by third party guarantees. Estimated at a potentially record breaking £20/30 million, the Miró attracted a lot of bidding but in very low increments until it sold for £22.3 million ($28.7 million) just short of the record £23.6 million for a similar work in 2017. Perelman’s guarantor may not have made anything on the upside of his Matisse, but they won the painting well below the £8/12 million estimate for £6.5 million, minus the fee they get for making the guarantee.
The other major contributor to the modern section, with paintings by Leger, Kandinsky and Picasso and a sculpture by Giacometti, was nonagenarian collector, Felix Posen, whose collection Sotheby’s described as ‘The European Avant Garde: a Private Family Collection’. Posen was born in Germany and his family fled to the USA in the 1930s because of the Nazis. There he made his money trading in oil, metal, minerals and coal, but is best known for his educational work and financial support for studies of Jewish Culture. In his forties he was working in London for art loving commodities trader Marc Rich, who subsequently ran into trouble with the USA financial authorities for tax evasion. Running Rich’s very profitable London office in the 1970s, Posen lived in a moated castle outside London and began collecting modern art. He bought from Krugier and Beyeler in Switzerland, but principally from London dealer, Leslie Waddington, who often traded with his partner, Alex Bernstein, through a company set up in Zurich. Overall, Posen and his family submitted over 40 works to Sotheby’s—eighteen in the evening sale with an overall low value estimate of £27.3/40.1 million. Nothing was guaranteed, and, including buyers’ premium, the eighteen works all sold to bring £47.7 ($61.3 million).
Highest hopes from the Posen trove were pinned on a classic 1914 abstraction, Nature Morte, by Léger estimated at £8/12 million. The previous highest price for a 1914 Leger was set in 2003 when Israeli collector, Sammy Ofer, outbid Dominique Lévy for ‘La Femme en rouge et vert’, paying a then record $22.4 million for it against a $10/15 million estimate. Posen’s Leger, bought from Beyeler in 1981, was a less enticing, more abstracted image from his highly rated ‘contrast de formes’ series, painted on rough burlap, and carried the same estimate at £8/12 million ($10/15 million). The other relevant previous sale was a similarly sized, but much clearer and more colourful 1913 Contrast de Formes which sold at Christie’s in 2017 for the current record $70 million. But neither persuaded more than two bidders to chase Posen’s less colourful example as it sold within estimate to Sotheby’s head of Private Sales, Sam Valette, for £12.2 million ($15.6 million). Earlier on, Valette had bought Picasso’s slightly awkward 1932 portrait of Marie-Therese Walter from the Posen collection at a mid-estimate £7.3 million for the same client.
Also from Posen was a 28-inch, 1958 bronze Femme Debout by Giacometti which carried the highest estimate yet (according to artprice.com) for this edition of 8 at £4/6 million. Large, 2.7 metre bronzes of this subject (called Grande Femme Debout) have sold for as much as $27.5 million, and the highest estimate and price for this smaller edition was $7.4 million against a $4/6 million estimate in Christie’s Artists’ Muse sale in November 2015 for no 1 from this edition. Posen’s example was no 5 from the edition and the first example at auction since then, attracting bids from Thomas Gibson before he was overwhelmed by a swarm of telephone and online bidders, selling for what he called ‘a very strong price’ of £10.7 million ($13.7 million) to a Swiss phone bidder.
There were only a few records of how much Posen paid but they revealed that some of his estimates had been set cautiously not far from 20/30-year-old levels. An early Kandinsky landscape of 1909, on the cusp of abstraction, which Posen had acquired at a specialised German and Austrian art sale in 1988 at Christie’s in London for a double estimate £705,000, was back with a £1 million low estimate and sold with a bid on that low estimate for £1.2 million.
A somewhat futuristic 1914 painting of angular figures striding out in the rain by Lyonel Feininger had been acquired in a Sotheby’s German and Austrian art sale in 2007 for an upper estimate £714,400 so seemed to be attractively estimated now at £600/800,000, but sold for just £639,000. Similarly, one of Jawlensky’s mask-like heads on paper (1918) had been bought in 2001 near the top estimate for £278,750 and came back not looking for a great return with a £250,000/350,000 estimate and sold for fractionally less for £237,500.
But equally, an arresting 1920 painted stone relief of a boxer by cubist sculptor, Henri Laurens, with a £400/600,000 estimate attracted bidding from Europe, Asia and America before selling to a US phone bidder for a record £2.1 million ($2.6 million).
From another collection came a sensual drawing of a ‘Reclining Nude in Striped Stockings’ by Egon Schiele. Estimated at £700,000 to £1 million and guaranteed by Sotheby’s, it sold on the low estimate or £855,000 to London dealer, Richard Nagy. “That was exactly what I had expected to pay”, said Nagy afterwards.
It was a great evening for Modern British art witnessing record prices for artists who would otherwise not have the exposure in high profile, international sales – the St Ives painter, Christopher Wood (£399,000), the radical lesbian constructivist, Marlow Moss (sold to an American bidder for £237,500), and the gay gardener-painter, Cedric Morris, a tutor of the young Lucian Freud whose early work bears his stamp of influence (£350,000). Morris’ 1953 painting ‘Cabbages’ had long been owned by Sir Peter Wakefield, the director of the arts charity, The National Art Collections Fund, who hung it in his sitting room at home where he enjoyed watching his guests’ reactions to the strangely surreal work by the little known artist who gave it to him as a wedding present. It is only in the last five years that Morris prices have taken off triggered by the likes of dealer, Richard Green (who didn’t bid this time, saying he preferred the artist’s flowers to cabbages). Ten years ago, this might have made only £10,000.
The most valuable contemporary work going into the sale was Francis Bacon’s late Study for a Portrait of John Edwards, 1986, described by one critic, off the record, as ‘dull and formulaic’. In a market where anything second-rate struggles, the estimate of £12/18 million was clearly too strong to attract pre-sale bidding interest, and it was withdrawn. That left Gerhard Richter’s aforementioned, Wolken, 1970, as the top contemporary lot. Last at auction in 2014 when it was bought by advisor Mary Hoeveler for £6.2 million, sold only on a single bid for £10.4 million – a decent return nonetheless.
There were nine guarantees in this sale worth a proportional 48 % of the low estimate value of the sale, which is par for the course these days. One was for a David Hockney Paper Pool (a cross between a print and a painting, but strictly categorised as a unique print) which carried a not insubstantial £4/6 million estimate. On past form, the guarantee seemed to have been well justified. A similar work, number 30 from the series, sold with the same estimate last year for $10.5 million, 15 times more than its price 9 years earlier. Another smaller version (no 2) had moved up in price from £629,000 ($774,800) in 2017 to $2.4 million last year.
This week’s number 22 had also been on the market nine years earlier, selling to the current consignor for $611,000. But there was not much bidding. It took just one bid to knock out the guarantor and buy it for £4.7 million ($6.2 million.) That’s a very good return; but it does not maintain the upward trajectory of Hockney’s Paper Pool prints.
Included was a Warhol diamond dust shadow painting diptych estimated at £1.2/1.8 million ($1.5/2.3million). Sotheby’s appears to have quite an unusual financial interest in this painting. In November 2015 they sold it for $2.3 million to the then independent art advisory group, Art Agency Partners, which was headed by Allan Schwartzman, Adam Chinn and Amy Cappellazzo.
Recently, Schwartzman left the company, though still plays a consultancy role, and AAP partner Chinn left to advise the Mugrabi family. Cappellazzo, though, is still there and so was the Warhol which they seemed willing to let go at a loss. In the event, they appear to be down 1 million bucks down as it sold to a Switzerland based bidder for £1.9 ($1.3 million).
If there were any hardship sales, they were well disguised. One which was not disguised was Bridget Riley’s Cool Edge, 1982, one of several works by her that are being sold by British Airways which is in financial turmoil. These were not, as has been reported, acquired on the advice of Susie Allen’s Artwise Curators, which was not formed until 1996. It was bought when British Airways approached the dealer, Alex Gregory-Hood of London’s Rowan Gallery, to provide work for the Concorde Lounge in Heathrow Airport in 1986. Riley’s work has been on a consistent upward spiral for over a decade. Estimated at £800,000 to £1.2 million Cool Edge attracted multiple bidders from London and New York, including Richard Green, and sold comfortably above estimate for £1.9 million ($2.4 million), not too far off the record for a (much bigger) striped painting of £2.6 million.
All told, the Impressionist and Modern works outperformed the rest by a mile with 100% sold for £82.1 million. Contemporary Art, after two unsold and two withdrawn, hit a mid-estimate £38.4 million, while Old Masters and 19th century, with the fewest lots and 3 withdrawn, came in third with £29.2 million of sales. Maybe not an exact reflection of the market generally, but seasoned dealer Nick Maclean, who was enjoying the canapes, felt it showed that classic modern art was just as strong as post-war. The sale had been compiled between departments in rapid time – the first announcements coming out just three weeks ago. But an important one to take into account when making comparisons with last summer.